Dr. Madsen

IceCube Project

Astrophysics Research

UW-River Falls Solar Study Leads to Antarctic Adventure 

Life on Earth relies on the energy that we get from the Sun. But the Sun can also be destructive for our technology-based society. A team from UW-River Falls, UW-Waukesha, and the University of Delaware is going to McMurdo Station on the coast of Antarctica to work on detectors used to study solar storms. These occasional eruptions from the sun send a burst of energetic particles to the Earth that can disrupt communication, and in extreme cases, damage electronics. These rare, interesting outbursts are being studied by the team with support from a five-year National Science Foundation grant. 

The Wisconsin team includes Sam Gardner, a third year student at UW-Waukesha, and physics professor Jim Madsen. Madsen and Gardner worked with University of Delaware Professor Paul Evenson, who grew up in Mercer, Wisconsin. From November 12 to December 6, 2014, they prepared to move one of two neutron monitors, the detectors that measure the energetic particles produced in solar storms. Both neutron monitors will eventually be moved from McMurdo station to a new Korean base built in Antarctica. The goal of the five-year project is to better understand the mechanisms that produce the solar storms, and to study whether the neutron monitors can be used as an early indicator of impending storms. 

Sam Gardner is working toward a degree in Chemical Engineering, and plans to transfer to UW-Madison in the fall of 2015. He spent the 2014 summer at UWRF updating the computer program that runs the neutron monitors. Last year a talk at UW-Waukesha by Madsen sparked Sam's interest in Physics. Sam says, "Working on this project over the summer has been an awesome experience. Being in Antarctica soon seems unreal to me, and the fact that I am able to contribute to the continued success of this project is an amazing opportunity."

Madsen has been involved in astrophysics research in Antarctica for more than fifteen years. During this time, more than 60 students have done astrophysics research at UWRF. Only a select few, four students in total with one going twice, have made it to Antarctica. NSF funding will send four students to McMurdo and four more students to the South Pole over the next five years. Madsen explains, "Sam was selected for this deployment based on his enthusiasm for the project, and his computer expertise." The South Pole neutron monitor project is headed by UWRF assistant professor Surujhdeo Seunarine who mentored Sam and five other students working on astrophysics projects in the summer of 2014.

The NSF funding for the neutron monitor projects specifically target students from two-year colleges with the aim of providing greater access to frontline research. You can follow Sam's adventure at  

Madsen and Seunarine are also members of the international IceCube Collaboration that built and operates a neutrino observatory at the South Pole. More research opportunities for students at UWRF and those currently attending two-year colleges were available in Summer 2015, including summer internships at European IceCube institutions. For more information on possible future research opportunities, call or email Surujhdeo Seunarine at 715-425-4604 (

IceCube is a particle detector at the South Pole that records the interactions of a nearly massless sub-atomic particle called the neutrino. IceCube searches for neutrinos from the most violent astrophysical sources: events like exploding stars, gamma ray bursts, and cataclysmic phenomena involving black holes and neutron stars. The IceCube telescope is a powerful tool to search for dark matter, and could reveal the new physical processes associated with the mysterious origin of the highest energy particles in nature. In addition, exploring the background of neutrinos produced in the atmosphere, IceCube studies the neutrinos themselves; their energies far exceed those produced by accelerator beams.